It now seems obvious that Northern Ireland’s power sharing executive has fallen. Because of the way the country’s devolved government is set up, when deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness fell on his sword (or semtex) yesterday, the First Minister – Arlene Foster – goes as well. So the two-headed monster tumbles down and Her Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, James Brokenshire, takes over until new elections.
This is the situation we’re in now. Admittedly it isn’t quite direct rule—the Northern Ireland Assembly hasn’t gone away. But elections to it needn’t be immediate, and they probably won’t be. And more importantly, the founding architecture of the last 18 years of peace in the North—a political friendship between the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin, as they co-operated to gobble up the centre-hugging Ulster Unionists and SDLP—crumbles like a rusty Ballymena tractor.
Give McGuinness his due. His partnership with Ian Paisley crystallised peace in Northern Ireland. He exercised his role well, bringing to it much more statesmanship than Sinn Féin’s bearded leadership in Dublin. His gesture of meeting the Queen last year was even the occasion for a bit of banter; having asked after her health, she arched an eyebrow and replied ‘Well, I’m still alive’. His exit is the last from the stage of those larger-than-life characters – including the likes of Lord Trimble and John Hume – who got us to where we are.
Or were. On the surface of it, the latest fracas is just a botched renewable energy project which squandered a bit of public money—the Renewable Heat Incentive, or this being Ireland, ‘cash for ash’. Really, though, it is the final breakdown of relations between the DUP and Sinn Féin, which have been fraying through splits on an Irish Language Act (there hasn’t been one), or even what to do with the site of HM Prison Maze. At the end of last year, DUP minister Paul Givan made relations worse by revoking a tiny £50,000 bit of funding for Irish language bursaries, which sent 100 children a year to the Gaeltacht. It was a good line in petty.
With the parties in such disarray, a breathing period of ‘government by Brokenshire’—the current Northern Ireland secretary, and a competent former Olympics-era Minister for Security—might help ‘put the manners on the local political parties’, as a retired civil servant put it last night, and perhaps rescue the North’s remaining parties. This would be wise. The DUP could well whip up its supporters to triumph in snap polls, but leave in its wake a paralysed Northern Irish government unable afterwards to form an executive. After all, Stormont does paralysed very, very well. Meanwhile a failure of the power-sharing institutions looks good if you are a dissident Republican, and never liked them anyway.
An awkward fact has to do with maths—and the outsized influence of the DUP in Westminster. The Prime Minister currently has a working Government majority of 14. Walking such a fine tightrope with possible Brexit votes in the diary, the DUP’s eight MPs suddenly gleam as a vote bank.
Bear in mind the peculiar political constellation that created the Good Friday institutions which have just crashed: strong support from a President Clinton energetically represented by Senator Mitchell; Bertie Ahern in his first term and at his full power; the flush Downing Street attentions of Tony Blair and (his role here never sufficiently praised) John Major.
Replace those figures with today’s cast: Donald Trump, Theresa May (who has other things on her desk to distract her), and Enda Kenny in a minority Dublin administration which is currently underwhelming expectations, and you get an idea that a repeat of 1998 might not be as forthcoming. So a better answer may involve opting for a breathing spell. Northern Ireland needs to examine impartially the ‘cash for ash’ scandal, carefully dust off the fragile Good Friday institutions and let tempers settle. In the meantime, let’s go for Brokenshire.